Australians are facing heightened levels of anxiety and psychological distress as the number of jobs lost due to the coronavirus pandemic hits unprecedented levels, researchers from the Australian National University have found.
However the survey also uncovered increasing signs of social trust and cohesion, despite the physical distancing measures in place.
The ANU Centre for Social Research and Methods on Thursday released the first longitudinal study of the social, mental, economic and political impacts of the pandemic
Researchers Professor Nicholas Biddle and Professor Matthew Gray uncovered "hardship and distress, but also resilience" through the survey of nearly 3200 Australians.
Almost two-thirds (66.6 per cent) of Australians reported feeling anxious or worried for the safety of themselves, close family members or friends because COVID-19.
Those aged 18 to 24 years were most likely feel concerned, with the proportion reporting anxiety or worry declining with age until 75 years, where levels of concern rose again.
The proportion of Australians identified with a probable serious mental illness also rose from 8.4 per cent in February 2017 to 10.6 per cent in April 2020.
Life satisfaction has also nose-dived since January, dropping from 6.9 to 6.5 out of 10.
"To understand the size of this change in life satisfaction, it is equivalent to a change in life satisfaction from a person moving from the 80th percentile to the 33rd percentile on the income distribution," the report said.
The poll also found the proportion of adults employed had fallen from 62 per cent in February before the shutdown, to 58.9 per cent in April 2020 when the initial impacts were beginning to be felt.
When population weights were applied to the data, this represented a drop in employment of approximately 607,000 people.
"This is truly unprecedented, at least in modern Australian economic history," the report said.
"To put this observed drop in perspective, the largest decline in the employment to population ratio that occurred over a two-month period since 1978 was 0.63 percentage points, which occurred between November 1982 and January 1983.
"We observed a decline almost five times that large in percentage terms, and an even larger drop in absolute terms, given the growth in the size of the population."
Declines in employment were most marked among those aged 18-24 years and 65 years or older.
However the survey also reported rising levels of trust and cohesion within society. Trust of others increased from a mean value of 5.39 in February to 5.84 in April, while believing people are fair increased from 5.54 to 6.04, and perceptions of whether people are helpful increased from 5.64 to 6.08. This increase in trust was largest among older Australians.
"During times of economic stress and uncertainty, there is a real risk that social cohesion, trust in others, and confidence in the government will decline. There is no evidence for this (yet) in Australia, and if anything social cohesion has increased. Australians are more likely to think that their fellow Australians can be trusted, are generally fair, and are generally helpful than they were prior to the spread of COVID-19," the report said.
"Given this focus on the health of the relatively old, and given the widespread observance of physical distancing measures, it is perhaps not surprising that those who are being protected have increased their trust and belief in the fairness and altruism of the rest of the population."
'In a twisted way, COVID has forced us to reconnect'
These rising levels of altruism are something the founders of the Canberra Wellness Exchange have witnessed firsthand.
The new initiative sprang out of the Canberra Mutual Aid movement, which facilitates acts of kindness for those most affected by social isolation.
The group is coordinating free wellness classes, including pilates, meditation and yoga, for the month of May.
It also facilitates daily sharing circles, where people meet online in a small group to practice mindfulness, gratitude and intention setting.
Co-founder Adelaide Bragias said they wanted to bring a sense of routine back to people's lives, and encourage them to look after themselves at a time when they were expected to be quite selfless.
"Through the Mutual Aid group, we were seeing a consistent need articulated for increased wellness services and making wellness more accessible," Ms Bragias said.
However it was also a way for the small business owners offering the free classes to connect with potential clients when the crisis subsided.
"We wanted this to be a two-way street. Facilitators would be able to meet new people in the Canberra community and people attending classes would be given the opportunity to meet other people also interested in wellness," Ms Bragias said.
Swaha Devi, an integrative therapist who is offering classes through the group, said participants had been grateful for the chance to try something different.
"Whenever a crisis happens, our mental constructs are broken down and the rigid way we've seen the world is gone. When your mind is less defensive, it's a really powerful opportunity to open up and try new things that can enrich your life in a way you haven't before," Ms Devi said.
The sharing circle run by Bess Harrison had been particularly life-changing for participants, Ms Devi said.
"As human beings, we're wired to connect. As infants we form an instant attachment to our primary caregiver and we continue to attach as adults, and when it's taken away you realise those relational cues, those visual cues in person, being able to see someone's face is so important," Ms Devi said.
"Doing it with loved ones is great but it can be equally powerful with strangers. We're all human beings in the end going through the same experience."
Ms Bragias said while many people felt they'd lost touch during the pandemic, others were finding connection in new places.
"In a twisted way, COVID has forced us to reconnect with our neighbours," she said.
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